Unveiling the Mystery of Pre-eclampsia | Action Medical Research

Unveiling the Mystery of Pre-eclampsia

11 February 2002
*Action Research funds new Oxford study into potentially-fatal pregnancy complication* Scientists are hoping to shed new light on a devastating condition that can rob the lives of mothers and babies. Pre-eclampsia is a common complication of pregnancy for which there is currently no effective treatment. Although symptomless in early pregnancy, classic warning signs include raised blood pressure and protein in the urine. One in every 10 pregnant women is at least mildly affected and for one in every 50 it can cause serious complications, and in extreme cases fatalities. Now researchers at the Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital are trying to hunt down the likely cause of the illness, thanks to funding from a leading medical research charity. Action Research, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary and whose medical breakthroughs include bringing ultrasound into the medical world, has ploughed almost £140,000 towards the three-year study. It will focus on whether women with pre-eclampsia suffer an excessive release of debris from the placenta, and whether anti-oxidants such as vitamins might help. Royal Ballet star Darcey Bussell suffered from pre-eclampsia during her first pregnancy last year, which led to her baby daughter Phoebe Olivia being delivered seven weeks early by emergency caesarean. The acclaimed dancer welcomes the new research and says: ‘Had the doctors not identified my condition and acted so swiftly I hate to think what might have happened. ‘Luckily my story had a happy ending. But we can’t underestimate how serious pre-eclampsia can be, and I take comfort from knowing that Action Research has made such a vital commitment to helping unravel some of the mysteries around it.’ Leading the new study Professor Christopher Redman says: ‘The exact cause of the condition is unknown and every year between 500-600 babies and up to five mothers die as a result of it. In severe cases, doctors often have no choice but to deliver the baby early, which can also give rise to premature birth complications.’ Professor Redman, who is based at the Nuffield Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, believes that all pregnant women experience a state of acute inflammation in their circulation. Pre-eclampsia is what happens when this inflammation spirals out of control. In this new project, the team is developing evidence from its previous studies (including one supported by Action Research) that tissue breaking away from the placenta into the mother’s circulation could be a contributing factor. They think that the mother is reacting to this debris in the same way as a parasite, arousing her immune system. Women with pre-eclampsia have more of this debris, which in turn produces more of an inflammatory response. They will investigate whether a shortage of oxygen in the placenta causes increased debris and whether protective anti-oxidants (including vitamins C and E) could possibly prevent or reduce this process. The aim is to help treat pre-eclampsia which would also reduce the number of pre-term births. Professor Redman says: ‘How this devastating condition arises is still unknown, but if we keep chiselling away at the problem you get closer to a solution. You might have to take it step by step, but the ultimate goal is to be able to prevent the condition.’ Over the last 11 years Action Research has awarded 17 grants related to pre-eclampsia, a commitment of more than £1,250,000. Chief executive Simon Moore says: ‘As we celebrate our 50th anniversary and look ahead to further medical achievements to be made, it would be marvellous if we could help overcome pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia.’ Action Research is committed to helping people of all ages overcome disease and disability. The charity’s Touching Lives Campaign aims to raise £2.5m in 2002 for vital medical research and more details can be found at www.action.org.uk A Case study is available: Throughout her three pregnancies Janet Goldsworthy, of Reading, suffered from pre-eclampsia. Unfortunately one of her babies died. For further information, interviews, and photographs, please contact Nicole Duckworth in the Action Research press office on 01403 327403 Fax: 01403 210541, or email nduckworth@action.org.uk ISDN facilities are available.
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